Former President Barack Obama addresses 2020 graduates: 'If the world's going to get better, it's going to be up to you'

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  • Barack Obama
    Barack Obama
    44th president of the United States
Former President Barack Obama addressed graduates in Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020 on Saturday. (Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images for EIF & XQ)
Former President Barack Obama addressed graduates in Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020 on Saturday. (Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images for EIF & XQ)

Former President Barack Obama wants the graduates of 2020 to change the world for the better.

During two different virtual commencement speeches this weekend, Obama, 58, told grads they will be the ones to make significant cultural change, because “if the worlds going to get better, it’s going to be up to you.”

During Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020, Obama included critiques seemingly referencing President Donald Trump, though the current POTUS was not singled out by name.

“Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think,” said Obama. “Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way — which is why things are so screwed up. I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.”

Detailing how many young people already faced challenging situations when the coronavirus pandemic emerged, Obama still encouraged grads to be proud of their accomplishments.

“Graduating is a big achievement under any circumstances. Some of you have had to overcome serious obstacles along the way, whether it was an illness, or a parent losing a job, or living in a neighborhood where people too often count you out. Then, just as you’re about to celebrate having made it through, just as you’ve been looking forward to proms and senior nights, graduation ceremonies, and let’s face it, a whole bunch of parties, the world is turned upside down by a global pandemic,” said Obama.

Despite these obstacles, Obama explained that a graduation serves as a passage into adulthood.

“It’s when you get to decide what’s important to you. The kind of career you want to pursue. Who you want to build a family with. The values you want to live by,” said Obama, who continued by recognizing the downsides of becoming an adult during a challenging time in history. “And given the current state of the world, that may be kind of scary. But, I hope it’s also inspiring. With all the challenges this country faces right now, nobody can tell you you’re too young to understand, or this is how it’s always been done. Because with so much uncertainly, with everything suddenly up for grabs, this is your generation’s world to shape.”

Noting that the experiences of heading off to college in the fall or starting a new job are threatened by the pandemic, Obama encouraged young people to do their best to help the world around them by building a community.

“Finding that first job is going to be tougher. Even families that are relatively well-off are dealing with massive uncertainty. Those who were struggling before, they’re hanging on by a thread. All of which means you’re going to have to grow up faster than some generations. This pandemic has shaken up the status quo, and laid bare a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems, from massive economic inequality to ongoing racial disparities, to a lack of basic health care for people who need it. It’s woken a lot of young people up to the fact that the old ways we were doing things just don’t work,” he said. “That it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick, and our society and democracy only work when we think not just about ourselves, but each other.”

Obama gave two separate commencement speeches this weekend. (Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images for EIF & XQ)
Obama gave two separate commencement speeches this weekend. (Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images for EIF & XQ)

In another speech honoring grads from 74 historically black colleges and universities as part of Show Me Your Walk, HBCU Edition,Obama again alluded to the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge,” said Obama, who went on to say that since African-Americans are “particularly attuned to injustice, inequality and struggle,” that insight should guide them to highlight the experiences of other who have suffered the same discrimination.

“You’re being asked to find your way in a world in the middle of a devastating pandemic and a terrible recession. The timing is not ideal. And let’s be honest — a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country. We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning,” said Obama, referring to the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery.

He concluded by telling grads to make sure they participate in the democratic process and stand up for what’s right.

“That’s the power you hold. The power to shine brightly for justice, and for equality, and for joy. You’ve earned your degree. And it’s up to you to use it,” he concluded. “So many of us believe in you. I’m so proud of you. And as you set out to change the world, we’ll be the wind at your back.”

Obama isn’t only big name to surprise grads with inspiring speeches this graduation season. During #Graduation2020: Facebook and Instagram Celebrate the Class of 2020, Oprah Winfrey challenged graduates to make the world more equitable.

“Can you, the Class of 2020, show us not how to put the pieces back together again but how to create a new and more evolved normal?” said Winfrey. “A world more just, kind, beautiful, tender, luminous, creative, whole?”

In his online commencement speech Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey called 2020 graduates “a special class like no other,” and encouraged grads to “act today in ways that you will respect tomorrow.” Meanwhile, Tom Hanks, who himself recovered from COVID-19, made a video for seniors graduating from the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. The five-minute video, filmed at home, called graduates the “chosen ones.”

“You will have made it through the time of great sacrifice and great need,” Hanks said in his speech. “And no one will be more fresh to the task of restarting our measure of normalcy than you — you chosen ones.”

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